I Used San Francisco’s Multi-Million-Dollar Open Houses as My Own Buffet
And was only mildly humiliated in the process.
All photos via the author
According to the California Association of Realtors, the median home price in San Francisco is $1,620,000, or roughly the cost of a moderately fast private airplane. Over the past two decades, an influx of tech workers has accelerated demand while the city’s restrictive zoning laws stymied construction. This is how you get a housing crisis. It is also how you turn a former counter-culture capital into a town where everyone calls watches “timepieces.”
I am not a tech influencer. Hell, I’m not even a thought leader, and I certainly can’t afford a Victorian manse with his and hers meditation pods. However, I recently devised a way to take advantage of San Francisco’s tragically lopsided housing market.
My plan started when a real estate agent friend told me in passing that brokers and industry professionals have access to a series of secret open houses on Tuesdays that aren’t advertised to the public. Unlike most normal open houses, these events are often catered. I’m not talking about bowls of individually wrapped Lifesavers here; these are multi-million-dollar listings, and the high-society agents who sell them expect spreads to match. I convinced my friend to sneak me a copy of the holy “Broker Tours Report” and, with it as a guide, would go undercover and pig out for free.
First, I had to come up with my cover. Brokers roll in a relatively small community and would quickly sniff me out as an outsider if I acted like a member of their esteemed ranks. I couldn’t pretend to be a start-up millionaire looking for a pied-à-terre, as home buyers are usually funneled to weekend open houses (which don’t have food). I settled on calling myself an “independent investor.” I don’t know what that means, but it sounded good.
San Francisco’s market is ruthlessly competitive, and houses go for much more than their listing prices because wealthy buyers will overbid and often pay cash up-front in order to eliminate their less-liquid rivals. Despite being overpriced, many homes only stay on the market for a week or so, and sellers will sometimes explicitly mention food in their Broker Tours Report listings to get an advantage. These houses would be my hot zones, and I plotted my route around them.
While this plan may be enough to feed me, a schmuck with far too much time on his hands, for one day, it's important to remember San Francisco’s housing crisis displaces long-time residents and leaves many homeless. When the city held a lottery to fill 95 affordable housing units this year, almost 6,580 people applied. California’s state government has failed to pass resolutions to ease restrictive zoning laws, and things will likely get worse before they get better. In the face of this growing problem, organizations in San Francisco are working hard to help families, pregnant mothers, and others who have been affected.
With the morning sun at my back and nothing in tow but a few ziplock bags to store any leftovers, I set out for the gilded city across the bay.
Open House 1: “Quintessential San Francisco flat in Hayes Valley.” 2 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms. Listed at $1,395,000.
The first listing opened at 11 a.m. and a woman stationed in the living room offered me a colorful information sheet that was printed on thick-stock paper that felt expensive. I snaked through the smartly staged rooms—a den appointed with children’s furniture featured a mid-century modern rocking horse—to the kitchen at the back of the flat. Much to my dismay, there was no food.
Back in the living room, the woman must have noted the panic on my face because she inquired if everything was OK. I desperately wanted to interrogate her about the dearth of catering but couldn’t play my hand so early in the day, so I simply asked, “Is that it?” It was not, and she directed me to the basement.
The basement was actually an immaculate office-slash-media room. Along a back wall was a peg board from which a gleaming, never-before-used toolset hung. On the bench below it sat two pairs of vintage roller skates, but still no food. Was this a trap? Did someone tip me off to San Francisco’s cabal of real estate brokers? I half expected the door to lock and for the basement to fill with noxious gas, but before it could, I checked the tour listing and realized I had made a mistake. This was the wrong house. I was supposed to be at a different “sexy reno,” one with catered brunch. Luckily, it was only a few blocks away, and I hurried for the exit.
Open House 2: “Sexy reno in the center of everything!!” Alamo Square. 3 bedrooms, 3 bathrooms. Listed at $2,995,000.
As the crow flies, it was a short journey, but I was unprepared for San Francisco’s topographical quirkiness. I don’t have a car, and by the time I trudged up the steep hill to get to the next house, I was a panting, sweat-drenched mess.
It was sunny and in the high-70s outside, but a gas fireplace roared in the living room. Small placards were scattered on walls throughout the house, and each displayed one of the listing’s many technological amenities. Written in clean Times New Roman and completely free of context, the minimalist displays gave the impression of being modern art.
Wired For Security Cameras
Voices echoed from the kitchen, where five well-dressed real estate professionals chatted about interest rates and a mutual friend named either Becky or Betty. They had gathered around an island, upon which sat a glorious spread of fruit, cheese, spring rolls, and pastries.
I ran my hand across the marble countertops and gave a quick nod to no one in particular, trying my best to convey that, as an independent investor, I approved. The charade continued and I acted perhaps a little too surprised to see the food. One platter was empty, and I wondered what delicious contents it hosted before being picked totally clean. Anxious to avoid any questions from the crowd, I piled a plate, snuck downstairs, and locked myself in a bathroom to eat brunch.
Pressing my luck, I headed back for the kitchen. “Just needed to see this view again,” I said, gazing at the skyline through the window. On my way out, I grabbed two more Spanakopitas. I shoved one in my mouth and walked around the block, away from prying eyes, so I could jam the other in a ziplock bag.
Open House 3: “Contemporary Luxury … Castro Beauty!” 3 bedrooms, 3.5 bathrooms. Listed at $2,795,000.
The next open house sat a mile and a half away and was scheduled to start in 15 minutes. I was wearing a button-down shirt to enhance the impression of being an independent investor, and it didn’t exactly wick away the pools of sweat that were developing across my torso as I traversed more godforsaken hills.
There was a pile of chic dress shoes on the landing outside the front door and a wicker basket overflowing with a tangle of footwear protectors that looked like hospital-grade hair nets. I removed my slip-ons, sheathed my feet, and walked in.
The house was a bland-looking prefab on the outside, but inside it was all vaulted ceilings and expensive furnishings. At the center of the crowded kitchen was an island the size of a shipping container. Everyone seemed to know each other, and they chatted over the Van Morrison coming from the modernist jukebox in the corner.
As I wiggled my way to the food, a woman introduced herself and asked if I was a broker. “Independent investor,” I said. She shot a faintly quizzical look, and I scrambled to convince her that I wasn’t a fraud. “My partner sent me the listing.”
A blank stare. Why would an independent investor have a partner? I was blowing it. Meanwhile, Van crowed about his “Brown Eyed Girl.”
I busied myself with food before the conversation could continue. I grabbed a small turkey sandwich and two skewers of chicken satay, and I glopped a spoonful of peanut sauce onto my plate. The listing agent was very concerned about shoes leaving marks on the hardwood floors, but she was apparently fine with dozens of people flinging peanut sauce around the staging furniture. A small placard detailing flavor profiles was propped up in front of each item, but I didn’t have time to read about the origins of all the ingredients. I had become paranoid and needed to scarf this meal down tout de suite.
I ran downstairs to the master bedroom, which was just as crowded as the kitchen. “I like the flow better than I thought I would,” mused a man in a fleece vest. The bathroom was cavernous and had both a toilet and a urinal, which is something I had never before seen outside a public restroom. I leaned against the jacuzzi tub and downed my sandwich in two bites. A group of women entered, and as I shuffled past them one cheerily asked, “Let me know if you have any questions.”
I ate the chicken satay outside, by the pile of shoes.
Open House 4: “Super-premium … classic top-floor condo … an entertainer’s dream.” 3 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms. Delores Heights. Listed at $1,349,000.
It was an uncharacteristically warm San Francisco day, and the sun beat down as I hiked a fresh set of hills. In my haste I had forgotten to grab a water, and parched delirium set in. I paused at the top of the Sanchez Street Stairs to stretch my cramped calves and was treated to a panoramic view that unfurled to the shimmering bay beyond downtown. San Francisco really might be the most beautiful city in the world. It’s just a shame no one can afford to live here.
There was an empty Maserati jutting out from the driveway of the next listing. This was a trend. Without exception, there was a haphazardly parked luxury car outside each of the open houses I visited. As gatekeepers to the most fraught housing market in the country, I can only assume San Francisco real estate brokers have some sort of diplomatic immunity.
Like the last home, there was pile of shoes in the foyer of this craftsman-style condo, and I covered my feet with the little foot condoms before entering. I squirmed past a few people in the hallway and noticed them glancing down at my feet. It was at this moment that I realized I had been doing it wrong. The cloth sheathes were supposed to go on over shoes, not your bare feet. The other option was to just wear socks. I was doing neither.
As I approached a platter of mini-sandwiches in the kitchen, a woman politely asked which firm I was with. I pretended not to hear her, grabbed a pamplemousse La Croix, and hightailed it out of there.
Open House 5: “Stunning Liberty Hill home.” 6 bedrooms, 4.5 bathrooms. Listed at $10,750,000.
I had already consumed fruits, cheeses, chicken satay, savory pastries, and a sandwich, but I was still starving due to all the walking. Desperate for food, I consulted my Broker Tours Report and found an open house nearby. There was no mention of catering, but the listing was priced at over ten million dollars, and so perhaps they thought it would be gauche to advertise munchies.
This mansion was located near Mark Zuckerberg’s in an idyllic, tree-lined neighborhood that, unlike most of the city, is devoid of that familiar San Francisco urine smell. The next day, Facebook would lose $119 billion in market value. Zuck himself would lose about $16 billion, or roughly enough to build 32,000 spacious homes in San Francisco. He still has plenty of cash left over, of course.
According to the packet I picked up in the living room of the ten-million-dollar listing, it features an elevator, multiple terraces, and rooftop deck with a sunken hot tub. There wasn’t any food in the kitchen, however, and so I hurried out the front door before I could experience any of those lovely amenities.
Open House 6: "BIG VIEWS! Perched on the edge of San Francisco’s prestigious St. Francis Woods.” 4 bedrooms, 3.5 bathrooms. Listed at $2,388,000.
It would have taken me over an hour to walk to the next open house, meaning I would miss its 2:30 end time. I took BART to Glen Park and then hopped on a bus that climbed up Mt. Davidson. Palm trees began to give way to evergreens as we ascended, and fog crowded out the views when I arrived near the top. I had to pee.
The home was in a quiet, suburban-looking area with winding streets and almost no pedestrians. I might as well have been in the Sierra Nevadas, though this mountain cabin featured an attached au pair suite and spinning studio.
When I walked in, the realtor asked me if I had a card. I don’t know why I said “yes,” and after a brief pause I corrected myself and made up something about taking the wrong wallet with me that morning. She didn’t seem the least bit suspicious and invited me to have a roast beef sandwich. Independent investors must own multiple wallets.
The sandwich was on a croissant and, while not as flaky as the pastries from earlier, was still plenty delicious. I peed in the master bathroom, nabbed a turkey sandwich when the broker wasn’t looking, and tossed it in a ziplock bag for later
Open House 7: “Gracious Mediterranean St. Mary’s Park Home.” 3 bedrooms, 1 bathroom. Listed at $1,350,000.
I ate the Spanakopita during the ride down Mt. Davidson and, after about a mile-long walk, arrived at the next location. This one was empty, and I made small talk with the realtor about the weather. She insisted that I make myself lunch and I happily obliged, taking some melon, cookies, and an extra sandwich that would, along with the turkey sandwich from up the mountain, serve as my dinner later that night.
Open House 8: “Spectacular Portola Home.” 3 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms. Listed at $1,200,000.
It was 3 p.m. and most of the open houses had already closed for the day. I had one left on my list, and it only promised “afternoon goodies.” My phone told me that I had already walked 20,000 steps, and while this next home was a little over a mile away, I’d be remiss to miss out on goodies.
The 280 was already jammed with rush hour traffic as I crossed above it. The climate on the other side of the highway was so different, I might as well have taken the overpass to Venus. Unlike Zuckerberg’s neighborhood, there was hardly a tree to speak of here.
The listing was one of the many modest, uniform homes that sit shoulder-to-shoulder all the way to the fenced-in reservoir at the end of its street. The house wasn’t treated to a “stunning renovation." It didn’t have a spin studio or a Sonos sound system, but there was an empty basement with a small sign that read, “Imagine the possibilities.” Despite its relative shortcomings, the house is listed at $1.2 million, and Redfin estimates that it will go for almost $200,000 more than that.
The agent was joined by a private mortgage banker, and they warmly asked if I wanted any donut holes or coffee. “You’re the first person today to accept,” she told me.
No one else was there. I asked if the open house had been going well, and the agent said they expected to get offers that week. I wasn’t sure if she was telling the truth, but as I walked outside, a Mercedes screeched to a stop in front of the house and the driver and his passenger strolled on in. Naturally, they left the butt of the sedan jutting out into the middle of the street.
A construction crew was busy working on an identical home a few doors down, and the dust from their jackhammer floated towards me and my late-afternoon snack. Expect to see that renovation listed on the market soon, but not for long. Hopefully there’ll be donut holes at the open house.
Follow Nick Greene on Twitter.
This article originally appeared on VICE US.